Building science, like any other variety of science, is largely about comparing one set of performance numbers to another. We want to know how much air, how much moisture or how much heat passes through one material versus another. We like having two or more products side by side, so we can determine which one functions best under different sets of controlled conditions. We contrive all sorts of tests to gauge the strength, the efficiency, the durability, the elasticity, the whatever…
As we have suggested before, admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek sometimes, it’s not necessarily rocket science – but it is real science. And it doesn’t have to be a bunch of dry-as-dust number crunching. Anybody who has had the good fortune of hearing building science expert John Tooley describe the tiny unit of pressure known as a pascal can attest that, in the right kind of mind, the subject can be crafted into something riotously funny.
But we don’t pursue this exercise strictly for its own sake. It is not just fun and games, nor a prescribed routine of academic gymnastics. We need to know how buildings perform, why certain things work and others work better. We need to understand the consequences of our choices, particularly in a world where we are increasingly on a collision course between the pursuit of infinite growth and the reality of finite resources. We measure these things because they matter.
Recently, in the wee hours of the night, a powerful Pacific storm front rolled in. The weatherman had it right for once. Rain and ice pellets beat a steady rhythm in the darkness while the large wind bent the trees and explored all the surfaces and seams of the house in search of entry. The roof, the siding, the big picture windows – they were all probed and poked. The moisture barriers and weather stripping were forced to step up, and because they had all been tested and retested countless times before, we were none the worse for wear in the cold morning light. We were safe and sound.
The world can be a pretty challenging place, starting with the simple, familiar elements of nature. Our task is to reduce the risk. To shelter is to protect, to safeguard, to shield, to defend – not only from imminent danger, but from future threats – whatever their source or origin.
Some might confuse building science as only being about efforts like determining R-values, comparing SEER ratings, measuring gallons per minutes, and so on, but that would be missing the larger point. What it is really about is building a safer, more secure world for ourselves and those to come.